Saturday, July 28, 2012

A famous Olympian on the Pygmalion effect

So how about that opening ceremony, eh? 

Today's New York Times features a story about Sir Roger Bannister, a former British Olympian who never medaled but went on after the 1952 Helsinki games to break the four-minute mile barrier - something many thought was impossible at the time. Dr. Bannister, now 83 and one of Britain's top neurologists, talks about how he may not have set that milestone if it wasn't for a chance conversation on a train that morning with a coach who believed in his ability to succeed.

When Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds at Oxford University’s Iffley Road track on May 6, 1954, he broke a barrier that had eluded the world’s top milers for decades, and ignited a renewed passion for athletics amid the hard graft of Britain’s early postwar years.

. . . .

On the morning of the record attempt, Bannister finished a shift as a trainee doctor at a London hospital, sharpened his spikes on a grinder in a laboratory, and headed for the Oxford train and what turned out to be the most telling encounter of a lifetime. Without that unplanned meeting on the train, he said, he would probably never have attempted the mile record that day, on what might well have been his last chance to break the four-minute mark.

The weather was foreboding. The end of his medical training was imminent, and with it his retirement as a runner. His pacemakers, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher, were increasingly hard to muster. John Landy, an Australian who was breathing down Bannister’s neck in pursuit of the record, was heading for Finland, then a powerhouse in middle-distance running, and his own assault on the mile barrier.

But on the train was Franz Stampfl, a sometime coach of Bannister, who mostly ran without one. A former javelin thrower and skier — and an Austrian Jewish refugee who had fled Hitler — Stampfl had arrived in Britain in 1939.

When World War II broke out, he was interned and then put aboard a boat that was taking him and other internees to Australia. But the boat was torpedoed off Liverpool, and Stampfl ended up in icy waters for hours, surviving when many others did not.

“He had suffered and survived through willpower and determination, and I had not previously met someone quite like that,” Bannister said of Stampfl.

And now, on the train, they talked.

“We looked out at the rain and he said, ‘You know, Roger, I think you have the potential to run a 3-minute-56-second mile, so even if the weather is bad you should make the attempt,’ ” Bannister recalled.

At the track, noticing the easing of the wind in the fluttering of England’s flag of St. George atop a neighboring steeple, Bannister decided that the moment had arrived. And it had.

Sir Roger is famously humble so perhaps he would have achieved greatness on his own anyway. But it sure makes a nice story.

There will always be an England.


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